There is a phenomenon in US politics known as the Yellow Dog Democrat. This describes a person who would vote for the Texas democratic ticket, even if it were led by a yellow dog.

It’s been a long time since the Democrats dominated Texas politics, producing such formidable figures as president Lyndon Baines Johnson, Speaker Sam Rayburn and senator Lloyd Bentsen.

Indeed, the last occasion on which the Democrats seriously looked to carry Texas in a presidential poll was way back in 1992.

Beto O'Rourke
Source: Getty

This may be about to change in the person of three-term US congressman Beto O’Rourke. Last November, O’Rourke, who has not yet declared his candidacy for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, came close to an upset victory against Republican senator Ted Cruz. O’Rourke distinguished himself by campaigning in every county in Texas in his dusty ute and by raising $US80 million in campaign funds without receiving a cent in political action committee donations.

A Texas friend of mine, who is a good judge of political horse flesh, says O’Rourke is a retail politician with rare skills not seen since Jack Kennedy. These skills were ­on display recently in O’Rourke’s home town of El Paso when the former congressman led an alternative rally to President Donald Trump’s revivalist meeting centred on building the wall along the Mexican border.

O’Rourke fell short against Cruz but with the momentum he generated Democrats carried along in his wake were elected, ­especially in Dallas and Harris counties.

There is a field of Democratic presidential aspirants worthy of the Kentucky Derby. A cluster of senators — ­Kamala Harris (California), Cory Booker (New Jersey), Kirsten Gillibrand (New York), Amy Klobuchar (Minnesota) and the evergreen radical icon Bernie Sanders (independent, Vermont), among others — is already in the race. There are other interesting aspirants including O’Rourke’s fellow Texan ­Julian Castro, former secretary of housing, and current Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Butti­gieg, who ­attended the Australian American Leadership Dialogue in Washington, DC last July, and impressed the Australians who met him with his engaging manner and thoughtful approach.

Apparently, most Democrats still favour former vice-president Joe Biden of Delaware, who remains with Barack Obama one of the party’s most trusted campaign weapons. Trump is alert to the threat of Biden, who can compete with him, even at the age of 76, for blue-collar votes in the midwest and upper midwest, which determined the outcome in 2016. This explains why Trump is so vicious in his remarks about Biden.

But the reality is that, despite engulfing scandals and continuing convictions of cronies, Trump remains the frontrunner to be re-elected in November 2020, given the strength of the US economy, and the fact that the Democrats have shifted well to the Left with the draft of the Green New Deal, sponsored by senator Ed Markey (Massachusetts) and new congresswoman Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez (New York). Hard-headed Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California dismisses the Green New Deal archly as a dream.

Given some of its more ambitious elements, such as ending air travel, the Green New Deal may well prove a nightmare. There is certainly endless ammunition for Republican critics.

During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, Democrats have either won the presidency during times of great national emergency, as with Franklin Delano Roosevelt during the Depression in 1932 or Barack Obama during the 2008 global financial crisis, or on the basis of a three-way split of the US national vote, as with Woodrow Wilson in 1912, courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt’s Bull-Moose campaign, or Bill Clinton in 1992, as a consequence of Ross Perot’s quixotic third-party candidacy.

However, the recurring theme has been that successful Democratic nominees have emerged from the south. After a marathon debate at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1948, president Harry Truman from the border state of Missouri was endorsed with his running mate, senator Alben Barkley of Kentucky. Lyndon Johnson of Texas picked up the legacy of Jack Kennedy in 1964. In the wake of the Nixon scandals, the Democrats tapped Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, and then turned in 1992 to a classic southern ticket of governor Bill Clinton of Arkansas and senator Al Gore of Tennessee.

Southern Democrats reassure middle American voters.

Which brings us back to ­O’Rourke and Texas, but more importantly to the unavoidable permanence of the US electoral college. In November next year, it is a safe bet that the Democratic nominee will carry the state of New York (29 electoral college votes) and the northeast.

Also a reliable wager is that California (55) and the west coast will slide into the Democratic camp, along with Illinois. The other two decisive states are of course Florida (29) and Texas (38). If a Democrat carries Texas, it is time to put down the glasses.

O’Rourke’s candidacy was a primary factor in lifting voter turnout by about 18 per cent last November over the mid-terms in 2014. Presidential turnout will likely be much higher and the Democratic base (African Americans, young people and Latinos) is expected to turn out in greater strength.

Trump understands the nature of this challenge and the potential vulnerability. Many regard him as simply a narcissistic blowhard. But he should never be underest­imated. He is both calculating and cunning, which is why he was in El Paso.

O’Rourke can be flaky, according even to his own supporters — he’s a Spanish-speaking, drink-driving former punk bass player — so his candidacy may “Roman candle”. But in a crowded field, O’Rourke looks interesting indeed. The first three primaries early in the new year are in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. O’Rourke has proved his stamina and his fundraising ability, and there is no doubt about his likeability.

Many other putative nominees for president, on both sides of the aisle, have been dismissed for having far less gravitas than the former Texas congressman. He is worth watching, especially if the Democrats decide they really want to win.